Problems and solutions

Apart from the problem of having almost reached the maximum limit in the exploitation of this resource, a fact that has already been mentioned, the utilization of glacier melt waters for the production of hydroelectric power involves some technical problems, which have important economic repercussions. One of the most important technical problems concerns the solid load that is normally transported by glacier melt waters, that is generally very high.
The waters that flow from a glacier always have a characteristic milky grey colour, due to the large quantities of very fine material that are carried in suspension. This characteristic does not make the melted waters particularly suited to be used for hydroelectric purposes. In fact the reservoirs and channels in which these waters flow and are collected are subjected to the deposits of the suspended material. So that the plants can operate efficiently and so that the capacity of the reservoirs is not modified, cleaning interventions are required, and the deposits must constantly be removed. These operations are costly and technically they are not easy. The progressive accumulation of material on the bottom of the reservoirs (known as silting process) gradually decreases their capacity and also the productive potentiality, because the utilization times are decreased and also the plant’s operative life. The waters that are rich with material in suspension also create another severe technical problem: the particles hit the mechanical parts of the turbines at a high speed and with great force and provoke a rapid wear of the same. For this reason these waters must be subjected to a filtering process before they enter the plant.
The filtering operations are difficult and they lead to the subsequent problem of the disposal of large quantities of limey mud and clay, without creating damages to the environment. Another problem that is becoming more and more serious each year is tied to the progressive retreat of the glaciers’ front. Many intake or input units, including some large reservoirs, are located near the glacier fronts in order to collect the largest possible amount of water, and to avoid any dispersion in the detrital deposit. The progressive retreat of the fonts requires the adaptation of the intake units, thus requiring a continuous modernization of the structures and their adaptation to the changing position of the new front. This leads to an increase in the costs and the environmental problems connected with the realization of new structures.
As an experiment, plants which take water directly within the glacier have been realized. These structures are mainly used for research and are generally associated with laboratories to study glacier dynamics. The most famous endoglacial laboratory is in Engabreen in Norway, and has been installed in the intake tunnel dug inside the glacier. Also the example of the Argentière glacier located on the French slopes of the Mont Blanc group of mountains, is famous. In the Sixties tunnels were dug in the ice, under the front, in order to capture the melting waters for hydroelectric purposes. A characteristic of the sub-glacial torrents, however, is to continually change their course, with sudden variations in their direction, therefore the galleries soon became useless and were transformed into underground laboratories to study basal erosion.

Special reports

From the Multimedia section

  • energy

    Hydroelectric production in Italy

    Look

    energy

    Number of hydroelectric plants in Italy

    Look

    energy

    Percentage of energy from hydroelectric in 2016

    Look
  • energy

    Waterfall

    Look

    energy

    Penstock

    Look

    energy

    Dam on the Colorado River

    Look
  • energy

    Dam on the Sacramento River

    Look

    energy

    Watermill

    Look

    energy

    Share of renewable electricity sources in total electricity sector consumption (2018)

    Look
  • energy

    Hydroelectric production in Italy

    Look

    energy

    Number of hydroelectric plants in Italy

    Look
  • energy

    Percentage of energy from hydroelectric in 2016

    Look

    energy

    Waterfall

    Look
  • energy

    Penstock

    Look

    energy

    Dam on the Colorado River

    Look
  • energy

    Hydroelectric production in Italy

    Look
  • energy

    Number of hydroelectric plants in Italy

    Look
  • energy

    Percentage of energy from hydroelectric in 2016

    Look

Facts